Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh assured migrants from the northeast of the country that they were safe as thousands fled Mumbai, Bangalore, and other cities yesterday, fearing a backlash from violence against Muslims in Assam.
Railway authorities have laid on extra trains from Bangalore and other cities for the two-day journey back to Assam, a state in the northeast famous for its tea plantations and oilfields.
Some media reports said that, by yesterday, as manyas 15,000 had left cities in the south and west.
The mass flight by students and workers back to their homes in a far-flung corner of the country was triggered by widespread rumours that Muslims — a large minority in the mainly Hindu country — were seeking revenge for the Assam violence.
“What is at stake is the unity of our country. What is at stake is communal harmony,” Singh told the parliament.
“I assure you... that we will do our utmost to ensure that our friends and our children and our citizens from the northeast feel secure in any and every part of our country.”
Muslims across India have been alarmed by clashes in recent weeks between indigenous people in Assam and Muslim settlers from neighbouring Bangladesh.
At least 75 people have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced there.
India’s post-independence history has been scarred by tension between religious and ethnic groups, which has sometimes erupted in blood-letting. While local tensions between Hindus and Muslims have often spread across the country, this is the first time that ethnic unrest in the remote northeast has had a domino effect in mainland India.
Two people were killed and dozens wounded last week when about 10,000 people rioted in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, after a protest by Muslims against the violence in the north- east.
Talk of Muslim revenge attacks has swirled all week, with threats of brutal attacks being made via social media and mobile phone text messages.
Some websites have fuelled communal tension by misusing pictures of Tibetan monks at a funeral service after an earthquake in Tibet in 2010, while writing about violence in Myanmar involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
“It is the obligation of all of us, regardless of the party, that we work together to create an atmosphere where this rumour-mongering will come to an end,” Singh said.
The police in Bangalore sought to scotch rumours of impending revenge attacks, sending a mass text message that told citizens: “Do not panic or heed to rumour.”
Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Muslim political party in the southern city of Hyderabad, also assured people from Assam and other northeastern states they had nothing to fear.
Analysts say political parties and religious groups have exploited the tension in the northeast for their ends.
The Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has in the past been accused of fomenting Hindu-Muslim violence, blames the Assam riots on uncontrolled immigration into the state from Muslim- majority Bangladesh.
Muslims represent over 13% of India’s population of 1.2bn people. Hundreds of thousands of people from the poverty-plagued northeast live in the south and west, studying or working.
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